Friday, 13 February 2009

On teaching and entertainment

An hour ago we started half term. Hurrah! I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bunch of teachers quite so ready for it. My colleagues are universally excellent and committed teachers and our students are some of the best in Wales but there seemed to be a general sigh of profound and exhausted relief all round today. There are several reasons for the general mood of tiredness: a late-night parents’ evening, uncertainties over whether or not College would be closed due to snow and some pretty heavy and unpleasant colds and coughs. But there are other stresses.

One subtle stress for us to make our teaching entertaining. Now don’t get me wrong, I loathe the idea of boring teaching, I don’t do it and I have a reputation for being one of the livelier teachers around. (Mind you it helps doing geology; I’d hate to teach French verbs.) The problem is that today in Britain – even with relatively well-behaved children – teaching has become almost a branch of the entertainment industry. We must vary what we do, must constantly stimulate and indeed should consider giving them kinaesthetic learning that involves touch, smell, sound and (should health and safety considerations permit) taste. Of course, this is all very difficult. For a start, television with its carefully scripted presentations, skilled presenters and large-scale special effects has set an impossible standard. For another, this is not a carefully controlled stage situation: we grapple with dodgy digital projectors, students arriving late, less than totally satisfactory rooms and so on.

One of the big problems with this is that it’s all rather like sex and violence in films and books; the pressure is to go further. The public demand for entertainment is effectively insatiable. Today’s youth becomes bored so easily that it is hard (nay impossible) to be consistently and permanently entertaining. I have considered a clown suit just to make the point. Indeed the demand seems to be becoming more pressing: what was amusing five years ago is no longer amusing today. This whole matter is very close to the ongoing British debate about ‘cutting-edge humour’. The problem is that was yesterday’s cutting edge is today somewhere pretty close to the blunt end of the blade. The result is that if you’re not careful you end up doing more and more things just to increase the amusement coefficient. It’s all wearying. Increasingly I feel like something like an actor forced to do matinee and evening performances day after day. Another problem is that this permanent attempt to achieve a lightness of touch is very misleading. Most of my students are going on to university and presumably all are (hopefully) going on to the world of work. There they will have to come to terms with tasks that are frankly not amusing or entertaining anyway but which still have to be done.

Anywhere, I realise that this is all rather disjointed. But I think there are interesting questions that can be asked of almost everything we do. Do we have to be entertaining and amusing? Isn’t truth of whatever kind sufficient to hold our attention?